Location: Outside U.S.
Date: Summer 2009
Why can some birds speak some of the words of the human language
and dogs can not?
Two non-scientific reasons: 1. "Talking" birds are smarter than dogs,
some would claim. I don't know how one would measure this
scientifically. And I'm sure there is great debate between "talking"
bird lovers and dog lovers. I do know that some "talking" birds learn
how to open their cages and perform other skilled tasks. There may be
some question whether the birds are just good mimics. 2. In order to
mimic sounds, whether speech or other sounds, the vocal cords have to
have certain anatomical shapes. Talking birds have this shape; dogs do
A very large part of the answer has to do with the shape of the animal's head
and vocal cords.
A dog has a very basic set of vocal cords- thick and stiff, practically no
muscles to be able to vary and tune them,and they have a mouth which can vary
only slightly. Dogs have very little vocal variation.
Some birds on the other hand have a very elaborate set of vocal cords which are
thin and elastic, and which they can stretch and tune. Some birds can use their
vocal variability to imitate a huge variety of sounds from their environment. One
of the world's best imitative birds is the Australian Lyrebird. The following
video from Richard Attenborough is quite extraordinary -
One step beyond simple imitation is the parrot. If a parrot hears a sound repeated
a number of times it can learn to imitate that sound. The parrot however cannot
SPEAK in the true sense of the word. What the parrot can do is learn to associate
the sound with an event. For instance, it learns to associate the sound "Polly
wants a tickle" with getting its tummy rubbed. If it likes having its tummy rubbed
it will repeat the sound more often.
Unlike mammals, birds have their vocal cords at the bottom of their windpipe (in a
double voice box called a syrinx by the way), and unlike most mammals, the vocal
cords of birds are short, thin, very flexible, and connected to an elaborate set of
muscles. They can vary the pitch and the tone of each voice box independently, and
because it is at the bottom of the throat they can add further variation by
stretching and relaxing their windpipe and adjusting the shape of the neck and
beak - hence their ability to produce such a variety of sounds.
Why does the lyrebird have the ability to produce more sounds - because it has a
more complex arrangement of muscles attached to its vocal box than any other bird.
For more detailed explanation see the following web page:
We humans can also produce a lot of variation because we have relatively small vocal
cords, which are thin and flexible, and we also have so many muscles in the face
which allow us to stretch and adjust the shape of the mouth in an enormous variety
Dogs, cats horses cows etc have relatively inflexible vocal cords which produce a
imited range of sounds, and then they have little ability to adjust the sound because
they have their cords at the top of the throat, and they do not have the facial
muscles to be able to produce anywhere near enough sound variety to be able to even
Tennant Creek High School
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Update: June 2012